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15 May 2014updated 16 May 2014 1:47pm

The Periodic table versus the Apocalypse

Not just a faded poster on a lab wall, but “as impressive as the Pyramids or any of the other wonders of the world”. The table also holds the key to finding replacements for antibiotics. 

By Michael Brooks

This month, researchers will gather at the Royal Society for two days of meetings about the periodic table of the elements. To most people, the phrase conjures up images of a fading poster on a chemistry lab wall – but to scientists, it is “the most fundamental natural system of classification ever devised” (in the words of the organisers).

And it’s not a thing of the past – the periodic table is still inspiring new angles of research. Because it suggests connections and similarities between elements, it is a source of ideas for extending our range of tools for manipulating nature and finding medical solutions. That third row of transition metals, for instance, might look boring but it isn’t if you have cancer. More than half of chemotherapy patients receive platinum in their treatment but it may not be as effective as some of the other metals in the third row, such as osmium and rhenium, research is discovering.

The periodic table has come a long way since its creation. We have added dozens of elements and have even learned to make 26 elements that nature didn’t get round to creating. By examining the building blocks of the natural world, we have designed some blocks of our own and extended the natural atomic scope by almost a third. According to the astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell, the periodic table is “a colossal monument to achievement, as impressive as the Pyramids or any of the other wonders of the world”. He makes this claim in his book The Knowledge, which was published last month.

In some ways, the book is a hymn to human ingenuity, charting how we have taken control of the planet, engineered solutions to the many problems that plagued us as we developed modern societies and learned to beat our microbial assailants to live ever longer lives. Yet it is more than that. It is a manual for rebuilding society in the face of catastrophe.

The periodic table makes an appearance because reading its patterns after the Apocalypse will help us find ways to exploit the properties offered by natural substances. It may be worth starting now, however.

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At the end of April, the World Health Organisation warned that antibiotic resistance is reaching epidemic proportions. “The world needs to respond as it did to the Aids crisis of the 1980s,” the microbiologist Laura Piddock told the Telegraph. We need to do far better than that. Our initial response to the Aids crisis was inadequate at best.

We are doing so well in the fight against Aids (in the global north, at least) because of Aids activists, not scientists. Scientific research into HIV and Aids was ready to sacrifice an entire generation of patients in the pursuit of carefully managed experimental data. This wasn’t because scientists were indifferent to the problem. They cared, but science, left to its own devices, is not a fast worker. That was why the patients rebelled and forced governments to adopt a crisis approach.

The intervention worked and there is every reason to think this could happen again with antibiotics. Researchers have been warning of the growing threat from antibiotic resistance since the 1980s. We are trawling for new ready-made alternatives but there are other avenues to explore, too. We know, for instance, that the answer to antibiotic resistance, if there is one, must lie within the elements of the periodic table, or the combinations they offer. The periodic table in hand, we need to implement an emergency procedure – before Dartnell’s book becomes essential reading.